Gig Review: James at Birmingham Academy 24/04/07, Brixton Academy 26/06/07, Manchester HMV and Club Academy 30/04/07

Before I begin, apologies for the delay in this post. Sometimes we run out of blogging steam a bit. This has been a hard one because as a result of too many gigs in too many far-off places, too much time on trains and in cars and not enough sleep, I managed to acquire a vile cold followed by a rather unpleasant ear infection and a new job which requires about 3 hours travel time a day and I have barely had the energy to get out of bed in the morning, much less keep up with blogging, but come autumn things should improve and hopefully we’ll get back to more regular posting (or I will, The Ledge has no excuse, he just hasn’t been in the mood). As a result, I’m not sure I can capture the giddiness of these gigs, but I will try.

I began my silly week of gigging with a mid-afternoon train ride to Birmingham to see James play the Academy, a venue to which I’d never been, and a smaller venue than I expected James to play on any comeback tour. When we made our way inside, shortly before The Twang began their set, the place was already heaving and sweaty, a bad sign of things to come. The Twang, as opening bands go, were not the worst band I’d ever seen open for James. They certainly were, say, less suicide-inducing than The Stereophonics, but watching their 2 singers strutting around the stage trying to emulate Ian Brown while sounding like Flowered Up or The Farm, I couldn’t help wonder why a group of young Brummie lads wanted to play music that was so hopelessly entrenched in the past, and why this music was a pale imitation of the third tier bands of the early-nineties Manchester scene rather than at least being a pale imitation of the first tier bands. They finished soon enough though.

Now, Birmingham is pretty much a muddle. I spent much of the gig being very hot and uncomfortable, being shoved around and feeling massively unsafe. At one point a drunken lout nearly pushed me down, pushed the lady in front of me over and received a kick in the nuts from me as a means of self-defense – he didn’t even notice. When I managed to stumble out of the crowd to a place where I could see nothing but speaker stack, I did notice that James sounded great. They had indeed continued the trend they began at Hoxton of mixing the set up and adding some old lost classics back in, including “Hymn From a Village” and “Honest Joe.” They have also gone back to the original version of “Come Home” with the long, aggressive trumpet-like intro, rather than the techno one. I can’t remember which mix is called what.

Birmingham, however, was not a patch on Brixton, which began with me finding myself down the front amidst loads of familiar faces and ended with us meeting a bunch of foreigners who’d travelled to London for the gigs who wanted to buy fanzines. The set was utterly ecstatic, I spent much of it with goosebumps and a stupid grin on my face and I wasn’t the only one. Neither Tim nor Larry could contain themselves either. “Waltzing Along,” my least favourite track on Whiplash, was spectacular and celebratory, “Out To Get You” provided a touching audience singalong, “Sit Down” brought back memories of why it was such a massive hit and “Gold Mother was just a cacophany of brilliance, with Tim inviting some rather bendy women on stage to dance. Brixton also had the unique experience of the crowd applauding security for pulling a drunken creep out of the crowd as he tried to flee, after he’d been reprimanded both by women stood near to him and by security twice for accosting and licking the neck of a young woman in front of him. There’s always one though, eh?

My James reverie was interrupted briefly for a remarkable weekend of Warren Ellis, Nick Cave and loads of Aussie goodness at Butlins, marred ever so slightly by a heinous cold acquired presumably from far too many late nights sleeping on camp beds and floors over the previous week.

Utterly exhausted, we returned to Manchester and a house guest, one Californian who’d spent the weekend getting over jet lag in our house after watching James at the MEN Arena who had also managed to get her and I wristbands for James’ in-store performance at HMV that evening. I had enough time for a shower and a rummage through the kitchen before we rushed back into town. It was to be two performances. The first at the in-store and the second a secret gig for Amazon and XFM competition winners only, to take place at the sight where Jim Glennie first met Tim Booth – in the basement of the Manchester University Student Union, currently called Club Academy.

The HMV instore was deep in the basement where they have a stage. I’d never been to one of these and didn’t know about this secret room. James had decked the stage out in tea lights and came on for a full-on performance including “Out to Get You,” “Sit Down,” and “Chain Mail” and it was amazing, if brief. The place was so crowded and sweaty and cramped that Tim insisted that the people at the front let a couple of young children through so they could see. When we realised what the wait would be like for the signing, we opted instead to make our way down to the Uni and get some food before the second set of the day.

After a ridiculous wait for a rather unorganised show – we queued first with the crowds for two other gigs, received wristbands and got sent to the bar to wait for another hour or so before being “summoned” downstairs. Why we didn’t just get told to queue by the door into Club Academy at the back of the building is beyond me…we then waited another 45 minutes or so for the band who emerged all smiles to point out that this was the scene of their formation – where Tim met Jim over 25 years ago. They wanted to deliver a special gig and they did not disappoint. In fact the set focussed on early James material with “If Things Were Perfect,” “Really Hard” and “Medieval” making appearances alongside such gems as “Seven” and “Heavens.” In fact, Seven was the only single they played until the very end when they did “Getting Away With It” and “Laid” in the encore. It was a magical gig, one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments where if I could have written the setlist myself it probably would have looked much like what the band delivered. The crowd was all smiles and cheers and it was a friendly crush of dancing and celebration – what I expected from Hoxton a month prior.

If I could have orchestrated the James comeback myself, written the setlist and demanded something specific from the shows I couldn’t have done a better job. Even if it is only the nostalgia keeping us going back for more, this is how reunion tours should be – full of pride at a back catalogue which is richer than most people realise, and playful – delighting the old fans and challenging any newer ones. If it ends with James doing a once-a-year arena tour playing songs from their heyday; if they play like this, I’ll happily keep going back.

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